By Churches for Middle East Peace
January 8

---------------- OUTLOOK FOR 2004 ---------------------------------

Outlook 2004: Politics in the U.S. Overtake Policies and Peacemaking in the Middle East

Turmoil remains the word that best characterizes the situations in the Middle East, as well as United States’ policy toward the region. As the new year begins—

•   The U.S. continues to have trouble enlisting major international partners in its Iraq campaign;

•   Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives are filling the vacuum left by the fading Road Map;

•   Perhaps branding Syria and Iran as “evil” will prove to have been not such a good idea;

•   The consequences of the reversal by the Bush Administration, relative to nation-building, are as yet unknown.

Following the debacle of justifying war on Iraq (because of the supposed threat posed by its weapons of mass destruction), diplomatic arms control may be back in fashion. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidates are stumbling and stuttering to distinguish themselves from the pack, while simultaneously criticizing President Bush and supporting the troops.

Iraq Is Emerging as a Top Campaign Issue

It will be difficult for the American public to be confident in their opinion about the war in Iraq and what is best for the American and Iraqi people. The differences among the Democratic candidates over who supported and who opposed the war have overtaken serious debate about what should now be the strategy of the U.S.

 

The Administration will continue to give the American public patriotic images and positive impressions. If the transition to Iraqi self-rule goes smoothly and there is a perception of success, public opinion will lean toward the Commander-in-Chief. Critics of our Iraq policy are threatened by simplistic charges of being soft on defense and not supporting the troops. Congress can be expected to be partisan, but each Senator and Representative will have to deal—regardless of the success or failure of the operation—with the tremendous financial costs of the Iraq war and its aftermath.

 

Is it the end of the road, or a new beginning? The attempt by the Bush Administration to lay low and stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian fray was never feasible.  Obliged to Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair for his support on Iraq, President Bush finally released the Road Map and a few months later took a major and decisive step by explicitly calling for the creation of a Palestinian state. While there have been signs that the President’s intention was genuine, there has been little evidence of the political will to do what needs to be done.

 

The commitment of the Sharon government toward the West Bank and Gaza settlements shows little sign of lessening, despite entreaties from the United States and the requirements of the Road Map. Israel’s building of the separation wall will be a prominent issue in early 2004. Photos of the wall—in some places a massive concrete structure 25 feet high—are readily interpreted by both U.S. officials and ordinary people as odious, and its snake-like line on maps as making impossible a contiguous Palestinian state.

 

While the Administration may want again to place Israeli-Palestinian dealings in the deep freeze, it may decide to revitalize the Road Map as a counter to the Geneva Accord and Nusseibeh/Ayalon public petition. It is expected that the issue of the Palestinian refugees’ rights and future, an element of both peace initiatives, will be a prominent and hot topic in the region, the U.N. and the United States.

 

If the Sharon government were to fall, there would be an additional reason for placing on hold the difficult compromises that peacemaking could bring. Meanwhile, the desperate economic and societal situation of the Palestinians worsens, with the fledgling Palestinian Authority losing public confidence that the promise of the vital democratic state can be realized.

 

As Congress resumes work in January, there are constructive resolutions on the table that lend support to peacemaking (Capps/Houghton resolution in support of Middle East Peace H.Res.479, and Feinstein/Chafee resolution in support of Middle East Peace S.Res.279).

 

It is customary for presidential campaigns to bring out the worst of political pandering, with pledges to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem being a favored ploy. Despite his campaign promise to move the embassy, President Bush has dutifully signed a national security waiver every six months as did President Clinton before him. Candidate Richard Gephardt has reopened this can of worms by saying, in an interview with the New York Jewish weekly Forward, that the embassy could be moved without delay before any peace deal is in place.

 

Diplomacy May Replace Bombastic Bravado

The terrible earthquake in Iran may provide the impetus for the United States to resume talks with Iran under U.N. auspices.  Bush cast Iran as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Since then the Bush Administration has reviewed its policy on Iran, and come to an impasse, three times.

 

But things have changed. The Administration has agreed to use diplomatic engagement with North Korea as the means to combat its deadly weapons.  Libya has agreed to surrender its weapons of mass destruction programs.  And, most significantly, Iran has agreed to allow surprise inspections of its nuclear program.

 

Syria is the only country on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism with which the United States has diplomatic relations.  Observers note that this keeps the door open for a resumption of negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights and provides for those spurts of U.S.-Syrian cooperation in terrorism matters and common interests. Nevertheless, fears remain among some pundits that Syria is next on the U.S. hit list, especially following Israel’s October bombing in retaliation for a suicide attack in Haifa.

 

Among the issues of contention with Syria loom the pursuit of ballistic weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Congress passed legislation in late 2003 that requires the Administration to impose sanctions on Syria. It is speculated that President Bush will choose, in 2004, to exercise the national security waiver provided in the bill so that sanctions will not be imposed.

 

Can a Common Security Concept Replace the Threat of Annihilation?

It has long been proposed that the Middle East become a region free of weapons of mass destruction, but that proposal has never been taken seriously by U.S. leaders. The consensus from Middle East experts is that almost every country in the region has pursued weapons of mass destruction. According to Joseph Cirincione, who heads the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, countries have done so primarily because of the arsenal that Israel has built-up. He told Washington Post writer Walter Pincus in April: “You can’t get rid of chemical or biological or nuclear programs in Arab countries unless you also address the elimination of Israel’s nuclear and chemical programs.”

 

It is clear that the many issues related to Middle East conflicts must be dealt with concurrently through a comprehensive peace process.  Following the 1991 war with Iraq, a conference in Madrid launched an international process that combined bilateral talks between the warring parties and multilateral working groups to deal with regional issues.  Working groups on regional arms control and refugees were established then but set aside when the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace process began in 1993.

 

Looking Ahead into 2004

It is sad to say but it is likely to be true that the less said by campaigning candidates about the Middle East, the better. There are no glib slogans appropriate for the complexities and sensitivities that characterize the interrelated issues at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the region’s nascent democratization.

 

Those who take up the cause of championing Middle East peace should do so with a sense of persistent commitment and be steadfast in our love and compassion for the Palestinians living under occupation and as refugees, for the Israelis living in fear and isolation, for the Muslim youth deprived of opportunity and freedom, for those Arab leaders seeking to modernize their nations and for all who pray that peace will prevail.

 

--------------------------------------

Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a Washington-based program of the Alliance of Baptists, American Friends Service Committee, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Church World Service, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Franciscan Mission Service, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Maryknoll Missioners, Mennonite Central Committee, National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church (GBCS & GBGM) .  For further information, see www.cmep.org